Watching the Sunset: An Interview with Deana Haggag

Pelican Bomb Executive Director Cameron Shaw talks with Deana Haggag about the process of deciding when it’s time to close a nonprofit organization.

John Frederick Kensett, Sunset on the Sea, 1872. Oil on canvas. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Editor's Note

I met Deana Haggag in 2016 at a Common Field Convening in Miami, but her reputation preceded her. In 2013, Haggag had joined The Contemporary in Baltimore as its executive director and sole employee. The organization, which began as a roving exhibition program in 1989, had been on hiatus for over a year due to financial difficulties, and Haggag, along with a reinvigorated board, had been celebrated for bringing back The Contemporary. With the help of the young staff she developed (Haggag herself was not yet 30), she energized its early programs and expanded its purview to include free artist talks, a dynamic teen program, and even a weekend-long retreat for 50 Baltimore-area artists.

In 2017, Haggag left The Contemporary to become President and CEO of United States Artists, a national organization that gives grants to artists of all disciplines. Leading up to her departure, The Contemporary again began to question its longevity, initiating talks of sunsetting before falling into limbo. A note from the board on the organization’s website states that they are currently reconsidering The Contemporary’s structure, programming, and finances before reopening in the future.

Haggag was one of the first people I heard talk publicly about the intentional approach to nonprofit closure known as sunsetting, its theories, and practicalities, and she was one of the first people I spoke with at length when I began to question whether Pelican Bomb’s time for such a process had come. In our final week of publishing, I sat down with Haggag to address the sometimes difficult topics she and others were discussing at The Contemporary and the importance of thinking about the end.

—Cameron Shaw

Cameron Shaw: What is your definition of a sunset?

Deana Haggag: We are using the term in relationship to nonprofit culture, right? My definition of a sunset is a slow, intentional closing or exiting. Let me rephrase this—It is the closing of an organization in a manner that is timed appropriately to the promises and the orientation that it holds in its community. In the case of how I have thought of that in my own practice, usually that means the slow closing of an organization and its programs. I think that stands in opposition to the shutting down or ending of an organization suddenly.

CS: For me, that’s one of the major differentiations—that it’s something that is premeditated. It doesn’t happen under duress. And rather than taking fully external considerations into play—like running out of money, an eviction, or some other pressure from the outside—I think a sunset really is the result of an internal process.

You spoke about sunsets in a panel with your mentor Elissa Blount Moorhead at the 2017 Common Field Convening in Los Angeles. Did she work to sunset an organization?

DH: Yeah, she did. She and her co-founders sunset Red Clay Arts in Brooklyn. The first part of my work with Elissa was about knowing when to ask questions. Knowing that you should sunset is half the battle, knowing when to make sure that your organization is not occupying space it should not, and that the arc of it is ending. The second part of our work has been thinking about ethical ways to do that. We’re using the word sunset for a reason. Like it’s not a power outage. At The Contemporary, we weren’t sitting there and suddenly the lights went off. It was more like, quite literally, watching the sunset, watching a sort of slow thing.

Another way I’ve thought about it is that there should be no collateral damage in the close. And that does not mean that a community or audience won’t be disappointed. I think that’s okay; people can still be disappointed that something they appreciate in their community is ending. One reason we were so adamant about the value of sunsets is that it’s essentially trying to offset collateral damage, as much as one can. Try to take your publics with you, try to take your audience with you so that you’re telling them at every moment when this thing is coming and what they should anticipate in the time in between, and what will happen after it closes. That to me feels totally different than, We ran out of money and we’re closing tomorrow. Goodbye forever.

CS: What are those types of collateral damage?

DH: In my experience, oftentimes when organizations close suddenly, there have been promises that are made that they cannot keep now, like certain programs that were already planned, certain exhibitions that were already coming, or in some instances, were already up. Things where expectations are not met. One question to ask is how to close and still fulfill every promise you’ve made to the best of your ability.

CS: These were some of the most important things for us in thinking about the timing of Pelican Bomb’s closing—what were the things we’d agreed to accomplish and what were the things that we, as an organization, wanted to accomplish to feel like we were closing in a manner that was both thoughtful and showed respect to our community. And also what our final programs could be that would either feel like a culmination of our work or be part of a legacy that we would like to pass on, for someone else to pick up the torch, even if they wanted to use the torch to light something totally different.

DH: I also think, in a sunset, you make space for those things to possibly happen. For things to be birthed out of them in a way that oftentimes cannot happen when the close is so sudden.

CS: Another thing we considered around making space was something you touched on earlier—this idea that organizations take up space in their landscapes. Whether or not they are making significant contributions to that landscape, they are also using resources, which are human resources, funding, social capital, and they’re using them for a specific purpose. So part of making space is not only freeing up those resources, those people, and those funds—because we recognize those things are unfortunately limited in a lot of landscapes, more limited than they should be—but also it is making space for new ideas and new problem-solving methodologies to come to the fore.

Why do you think it’s so important to have public conversations about sunsets? I think your approach at Common Field was to say this is a conversation we’re having privately within our organizations that we need to be having as a field, and we need to be having it in public. Why do you think that aspect of it is so critical?

DH: I think that the experience of closing something is too wrapped up in feelings of failure. For most practitioners, ending something can feel like it comes out of their inability to go on or push forward. I struggled with those feelings when I was thinking about possibly ending this museum that had a 30-year legacy. It feels very similar to when individuals don’t know how to talk about money, or financial shame. It’s all wrapped up in the way we think about our egos, so it was important to have that conversation out loud.

I also realized how few examples there were of thoughtful sunsets relative to the size of the field, and definitely in comparison to the number of organizations that just close all of a sudden and completely ambush the public with, quite literally, Today you can walk in the door and enter our museum, our organization, etc., and tomorrow you can’t. There were so many models of that and not enough models of sunsets. But, if we talk about it more, could those organizations have anticipated this thing further in advance, and then closed mindfully versus this big, dramatic puff of smoke? That was one of the reasons to have that conversation publicly, and frankly, in discussing it publicly, there has been an overwhelming response, either from folks who are too ashamed to admit that that’s where they are right now and they’re grateful to be able to hear the conversation outlined in this way or folks who are audience members of organizations that they believe deeply need to sunset in their communities. They did not say that with hostility, but are wondering whether it’s time now. Because another thing that’s important with the taking up of space is that it’s not just about the money, of course, and the labor and the human resources, attention is also a resource. Right now, everything is vying for your attention, and perhaps your institution is just not one that should take up space in your audience’s psyche anymore.

CS: That’s a particularly important question that arts organizations are facing, especially in this political moment where attention feels like an extraordinarily precious resource because many communities are experiencing their lives and their livelihoods under threat. How does an arts organization think about how it contributes to moving important public conversations further, and when are organizations actually distracting us?

It’s not only distracting for publics but it’s also distracting for us as organizers. For me personally, I was and still am deeply invested in what my organization has accomplished and the power of contemporary art and of critical writing, but the 2016 election cycle made me think differently about whether being an executive director was the best way for me to be of service to the communities I am a part of. So there was the question of personal impact, but also organizational impact. Even before that time I had begun to ask, What is our lifespan going to be and how will we know when we’ve successfully made our impact? There’s also this question of longevity. We live in a culture where the assumption is that these things live on indefinitely, and that they should be built with the ability to live on forever. In many ways that’s part of a system that I think a lot of people are questioning. Is longevity a necessary aspect of something having impact, and what does it actually mean to cede space?

DH: One question that kept coming up—which sounds dramatic, but I thought a lot about it when we were thinking about sunsetting The Contemporary—is: Why is dying the worst thing that can happen to a human being? As a society, the emphasis that Western culture places on death being the single worst thing anyone or anything could deal with feels like a bizarre, Eurocentric way of thinking about a life. So for me, the sunsetting thing got much deeper, really personal, and specifically as a person—a Muslim person, as a woman of color, as a disabled person—the value on my life being only in comparison to it dying was just too strange and extreme. Eurocentrism really prioritizes this longevity, and I realized we were taking all that out in our work.

CS: Absolutely—adrienne maree brown hits on this very well in her book Emergent Strategy—so much of what we learn about organization-building is predicated on a dominant value system. The white supremacist, patriarchal way of building systems prioritizes certain values and discounts other ways of thinking. It’s really important to have those moments and check if our work and our values are aligned. I think that’s precisely what you’re talking about regarding valuing longevity or even life itself. Our ways of relating to one another as individuals become the basis of our organizing, which becomes the basis of our organization-building, which becomes the basis of our movements, and it’s really important to check in on the ways in which that is scaling itself.

DH: This sense of longevity is how we’re oriented as a society and this is the kind of stuff we end up bringing into our practices as individuals and into our organizations. I think this pathology around longevity has been the single largest reason that people and organizations cannot hold themselves accountable.

One thing we realized at The Contemporary is that the decision to close the museum was one general set of questions—whether or not we believe that we needed to close the museum and whether we thought we could act on that. Within that was another set of very pointed, direct questions about what we were doing, whether or not it was relevant to our communities, whether or not we were taking up space we deserved.

When I started working with a new organization, United States Artists, it became really interesting to enter it with that frame of mind. Like, does this organization need to exist, why did we exist, what are we contributing? And I think it freed us up to be a little riskier. It allowed us to not get too caught up in ourselves, and then it also added a lens of accountability that I think is actually impossible to have if you are operating under the assumption that you need to exist indisputably. One thing that’s important about sunsetting is that, even if you’re not thinking about closing your organization, it’s a helpful tool for you to have.

CS: Even if the end is not imminent or you don’t know when the end will come, there’s that very basic visioning question: What will the world look like if we do our job correctly? I think when we really start to think about what the endgame is, we’re able to evaluate the present in different ways.

But also, we can borrow from the business world. A nonprofit can also have an exit strategy. That can be its own close; that can mean being subsumed into another organization; that can mean a merger. There are opportunities for how we think about our organizing and our institution-building that exist already in other facets of our culture. Yes, it’s important to question the cultural value of longevity at large, but we can also acknowledge that the for-profit world has developed some innovative solutions for thinking about how things end. The nonprofit world, however, has not seemed to have embraced those same solutions. I think that’s a really interesting part of this conversation.

DH: While they don’t always do it right, I think the for-profit world approaches the question of function head on because they have a profit margin. It can be easier to measure success when you are operating with a profit-or-loss stance, and I think we forget that.

One question that came up with The Contemporary was, If we close, will people miss us? First, would they miss us? And second, those people that would miss us, are those the people we think are our key audience? Are those the people we want to miss us? I think that helped make sure that we didn’t hurt those communities by closing suddenly, and we were able to question whether the thing we were contributing was valuable. I feel like we need to do these mental exercises borrowed from the for-profit sector, like, If we close, would we merge any of our programs with other places? And if you can name them, then maybe we shouldn’t exist, and maybe the success should just be shared with someone else. I love sunsetting as an organizing tool. It’s so important. It’s also not just in business. We do this all the time in other ways. We consider this in our romantic relationships, when to break up with someone.

CS: If an organization is evaluating their lifespan, what is the one piece of advice that you would give?

DH: To include at a fundamental level your full staff and your board at every turn of that conversation. Nonprofits are also power structures, and oftentimes the footsoldiers of those nonprofits are not the same ones who hold the power. I think questions about your lifespan are an easy way to say everyone’s opinion matters in that conversation. Our staff could talk about something knowing fully well that it would put them out of a job, and our board could talk about something knowing that it’s wrapped up in their legacies. Getting everyone around the conversation is the best piece of advice I can offer.